But right now, community is the problem, not the solution. And if we want fellow-feeling, we’re going to have to look for it on Zoom and Skype and FaceTime.
Besides, as someone who used to really cheerlead for theater as an empathy vector but has watched too many audiences rage and cry and then go out for a nice dinner and may have enjoyed the occasional nice dinner, too, I know that catharsis isn’t as useful as action. And the actions we can currently take are to stay home and try not to hoard Purell.
There are ironies here, of course — that in order to maintain an already dangerously atomized society we have to atomize further, that in order to preserve communities we have to back away from communal activities. Some great modernist works, like Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” or Karel Capek’s “The White Plague,” blame illness on an obliteration of social bonds. But let’s go with the epidemiologists on this one.
I should probably say that I don’t really want to stay home, and that I’ve felt a fair amount of self-involved panic alongside the it’s-the-right-thing-to-do vibes. I enjoy my work, my family depends on my earnings as a critic, I lean on drama to lift me out of myself and I don’t really know what a week feels like without frantically rushing out the door at 6:45 p.m. and frantically rushing back in again moments later because I’ve forgot the unlimited MetroCard, of swiping on some lipstick on the subway, of sitting and breathing together with a dozen or a hundred or a thousand others, in the audience and onstage. (Or, I do know, and it’s weird.)
But I will stay home. Because it’s right, because it’s responsible, because I don’t have any alternatives and because I have kept my kids home whenever they have come down with strep or stomach flu, because to live in community means to work to protect community. Catharsis or a laugh or even the comforting ritual of rolling my eyes at other people’s alcohol sippy cups is what I could really use right now.
Even at the end of “Endgame,” when everyone is seemingly dead or about to die (Beckett, never change!) the play reminds us of our mutual obligation. Here’s a line from the play’s final speech: “It’s we are obliged to each other.” Maybe that’s something for theater makers and audiences to remember, even as we sit at home, apart.